The Sinking of the Nameless

Great tragedies have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour. Their heroes grow taller now than when they walked on earth and their dead live forever in story.

This is not a great tragedy. This is just a boat of migrants that went down in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war of Fortress Europe.

Lesvos, 2015

Content warning: distressing scenes, death of a child by drowning.


I acclimate to the volunteer life on Lesvos. I acclimate to the segregation in the camps, packed tents of Syrians looking like dignity compared to the Iraqi, Afghan and miscellaneous African people left sleeping in dirt. I acclimate to screaming babies being thrown at me from dinghies and the brutality of the Greek police. I acclimate to aid workers eating in good restaurants while the children they’re here to help eat from the dustbins outside. I acclimate to the numbness that spreads right out to your fingers and toes to keep you from breaking.

My friend Ashley convinces me it’s time for a day off. We don’t work by shifts for a charity, we just do what needs doing and that shift is endless. We plan to drive from Anaxos to Molyvos for a dinner that isn’t rice and beans or eaten standing up. It’s a half hour drive down the coastline but you’d have to be a sociopath to make it in that time today. 

The sky is bright but the sea is furious and the wind bites. Even so, boats approach the island endlessly. Every few hundred metres along the beach is another dinghy coming in without anyone to meet it, another boat wrecked at terrifying angles on the sand with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the rails like trapped angels. We stop and stop and stop again. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for seats on the rescue bus, phantom ambulances chased for the sick and injured. 

Breakfast and lunch come and go and we’ve given all our food away, so by the time we reach Molyvos, we’re starving. We talk quietly as we each wrestle our own guilt. After weeks not really using it, our privilege of being able to step out of this cataclysm feels grotesque. The simple act of sitting down to bread and wine has become bizarre. My eyes sweep the harbour, painted late afternoon pink. The restaurants are all open, all empty. Waiters recline in patron’s chairs, smoking and chatting. Inland, hazy indigo peaks reach into the sky. It strikes me as vaguely odd  that I can’t unclench my teeth. 

We’re a few bites into our bread when the sirens start. Rescue workers hurl themselves out of doorways from nowhere. With a synchronicity that only comes to a place where disaster has become routine, tables and chairs are swept away in one smooth motion. Volunteers, locals, journalists and medical teams are converging on the waterfront.  Ten or fifteen children come off that first rescue boat, which heads immediately back to sea. I put my arms out to receive a young boy. He can’t be more than nine years old. He is unconscious. I run for the medical team, transfixed by his face. He looks strangely peaceful, only his skin is grey and his lips are blue. 

I lie him down beside one of the Red Cross doctors. The doctor is already working on a little girl. He doesn’t even look up. “I’m using both my hands already.” His tone is matter of fact, the way an adult might reassure a child with a serious injury that they have everything under control. “Can you do what I tell you?”

“Yes.” My voice sounds far away. 

I get my first crash course in CPR. I am terrified of hurting him, of doing something wrong. Thirty chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. His lips like ice on mine. Thirty compressions. Nose. Breathe. Thirty compressions. Nose.

 Breathe, breathe, breathe. 

The boy’s eyes fly open and he starts coughing water. I roll him over and rub his little back. Once he’s breathing right we strip off his wet clothes to prevent hypothermia. The medics disappear. I wrap the boy up in my jacket and lift him onto my lap, covering his body with mine. I can see Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics try to get water from her chest. Every time I see a medic I have them check him. They are overwhelmed. They say he’s okay but he doesn’t look okay to me.

 I’ve been an atheist all my life. This is when I start praying. 

I know there is more to do but until someone appears who can take better care of this boy me, I’m not leaving him. I don’t know how long I rock back and forth with him in my arms whispering in a language he doesn’t understand. 

Now and then he opens his eyes a little but they never focus. 

I don’t know if he sees me. 

I choose to believe he can hear my voice, feel warmth, recognise the feeling of being out of the water, being cared for. I’ve never felt love as vast and desperate as I do holding this child in my arms. Together with the horror, it engulfs me. 

Before I left, a friend of mine warned me that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I think about that as I hold this boy, who in this moment has only me in the world. Photographers circle like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong. 

I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. 


Finally, the ambulances come. The paramedic has to pry my arms straight out from under the boy. I don’t want to let him go. I’ll never know what happens to him. A second siren announces the return of the coastguard. Somehow, my legs carry me over. I put my arms out to an Afghan woman who grips them like she’s still drowning. 

“My mother, my brother!” she shouts in English. I try not to think of my own mother drowning. 

“Boats are still coming,” I tell her. She does not respond. “We have to care for you now. If you don’t get dry, you’ll get sick.” 

At first she won’t let me, so I just blanket her shaking body, speaking softly and waiting with dry clothes until she’s ready to be touched. 

“Please, please, my mother is a good woman.” 

A flare of fury that in this moment of all moments, she feels the need to assure me that her mother deserves to be rescued. Her name is Sultana. She is alone now, she keeps saying. I help her change, shaking and crying. Feeding her water feels like the most important thing I have ever done. 

The priest opens the church to provide shelter, so I help her inside and encourage her into the recovery position as she coughs up the last of the sea water. I take her name and promise I’ll look for her family and come back. She kisses me and kisses me and kisses me. Twenty minutes later when I return with more supplies, she’s gone. 


There is one more boat after that and fewer people this time. The coastguard has given up the search. The tavernas have reopened to offer shelter and tea. Elderly local women rock motherless babies. One catches my eye. She cocoons a little girl in a blanket as expertly as if she were her own. Her dark eyes brim with an angry love. I want to reach out to her but she seems far away and I don’t want to be the one to bring her back here. 

People weep on the floor, staggering from group to group, crying out for their loved ones; women call for their children, men ask after their wives. I work with a multilingual Syrian man to compile a list of names. The mothers are relieved just to have someone asking after their children. They stay calm while they spell each name and give the age of each child with any distinguishing features. Then when the helplessness sets in, they break down. I hold some as they cry. I am useless, wooden. A softly spoken woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped from the rescue boat has lost her husband and all three children. 

When the translator has to leave, I hide in an alleyway to cry. Five or six hours in and it’s dark. I haven’t stopped for food or water or breath and I have no idea where Ashley is. A low, alien sound rises up from the back of my throat. There is a unique kind of crying for when you’ve seen a dead child for the first time; a child who, without the right passport, died to make a journey that you could make whenever you like for about ten euros. 

I sway, wordless.

Another volunteer finds me, asking for help with a young mother. She is sitting in a doorway soaking wet, refusing all help until we find her baby. Unblinking, she watches the sea for a boat we know isn’t coming. 


“How do we get her to drink?” asks the young American. 

“She told us,” I reply. “We find the baby.” 

I don’t know what the best use of my time is at this point but doing almost anything seems less futile than allowing myself to feel this grief that isn’t mine but which nonetheless threatens to swallow me. Once she recognises me as ‘the person on the phone about the baby’, her eyes start to follow wherever I go. Every time I take a call, there is hope. I start gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible because I can’t bear it. 

Eventually, a local doctor reports two infants had been rushed from the first rescue boat straight into hospital. It doesn’t look like they are going to make it and we can’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police aren’t letting anyone leave. It is the first moment I become aware that the police are even here because they aren’t running around like the rest of us, just standing in clusters on the edge of chaos.

I make a beeline for the nearest officer. I explain that she’s at risk of hypothermia but won’t accept care until she sees her baby. I beg him to help me find a way to get her to the hospital. The officer towers above me in his riot gear – like anyone here has the energy to start a riot. 

“Like I told the doctor, she was rescued at sea.” He won’t even look at me. “That means she is formally detained until she gets her registration papers. No papers, no hospital.” 

“It takes days to get papers. Her baby could be gone by then, can’t you just escort her?”

“No papers, no hospital, you get it?” he repeats. 

I am haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she is being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. The rage is unspeakable.


Like an alien from another planet, good news: ‘Shorooq family found.’ I grab a translator and head straight to where I’d left Named. She starts crying again, kissing my hands, clinging. I wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I need to know I am still living in a world where good things can happen. 

We hold each other as we wait and I listen to her pray. Every time a van passes, her nose is pressed against the window. From the third van steps her husband. She calls his name, yanking me with her through the door. In his arms, he cradles their youngest child, two year old Razan. I recognise his name from the list we made. There are no other children.  

Named falls to her knees before her husband, howling. She thumps his legs with one fist, still gripping my hand with the other. This isn’t what we’ve been waiting for. It’s almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little boy all she can see is the absence of the other two. 

Her husband stands like a statue, holding his son. His eyes brim with shame as he accepts her blows in silence. I tell her there are children in the hospital. It’s possible they are alive. I don’t really believe it and she knows it. Her daughter, Maram, is six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, Named takes her baby in her arms like she will never let go.

I leave them grieving together and return to give the other mother some answers. Her brother translates as I explain there are two babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We don’t know if one is hers. We cannot take her to them. I find myself quoting the police. “You are being detained. You cannot leave until you get your papers.” 

I tell her I am deeply sorry and the words taste loathsome.

She looks at me with an expression of absolute incomprehension. I have a human right to seek asylum from war. The whole world knows what is happening in Syria. I am not a criminal, so why am I a prisoner? Even a criminal deserves to hold their baby before they die.

Her brother’s heartfelt thanks make me feel even worse. At the very least, I resolve to try and get her into the Syrians-only camp where she can be fast-tracked for her registration papers. The only place to go for that is the man with the clipboard and a cap that informs the world he works for the UN High Commission for Refugees. I argued with him earlier about getting access to the hospital and he doesn’t look pleased to see me again. Bitterly, I concede there is nothing to be done for her tonight but please could we just talk about what will happen tomorrow. 

“Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I ask him exactly what his responsibility is. He ignores me.

“You know the police won’t do anything,” I argue. “Please, can we just try to figure out how to do our best for her?” 

He walks away. I wonder if at some point, just to keep doing his job, he’s had to reach deep inside himself and smother something essential. Eventually, I find someone else to have the woman and her brother collected in the morning and fast-tracked together, so she doesn’t have to go to the hospital alone to identify her baby’s body. Their gratitude is jarring.


Ashley finds me smoking with my legs dangling over the water, staring down at the debris. Emergency blankets gleam like buried treasure from beneath the bobbing water bottles and a cluster of empty life jackets that cling to each other.

“You ok?” I ask, absurdly. She sits down heavily next to me. My voice still sounds far away. 

“I don’t think I can take much more of this.” Her voice breaks. “It’s time to go home soon or we’re really going to fuck ourselves up.”

“We’re already fucked up.” I drop my cigarette butt into the Aegean because nothing seems beautiful or salvageable at this point. “We were fucked up before we came, we just didn’t know how badly.” 

Ashley is silent. 

In a waterfront café, I get a few people fed while Ashley uses her phone to help them contact home. Across the table, a Norwegian volunteer comforts a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family is presumed drowned. 

When the survivors start talking and we learn that three hundred people had been packed onto a rotten little two-storey tour boat, the kind that started appearing on the beaches after last week’s storm. It’s the families with babies, disabled and elderly relatives who pay extra for the wooden boats because they’re meant to be safer. The boat’s top floor crashed onto the bottom and it sank in less than a minute, leaving a pool of orange life preservers shining in a great expanse of blue. 

From the ceiling, a television screen shines down a basketball game, adverts for cosmetics and gambling apps and cleaning products that kill 99.9 percent of bacteria. The local news comes on and we blankly watch images of ourselves from the hours before. 

Ashley is in no condition to drive so we stay in an empty hotel nearby. We talk a little, just to hear each other’s voices. Once she’s sleeping, I go up to the roof to watch the sunrise with my back to the sea. 

The next day, I scan the media coverage for names I recognise, but there are no names. That’s why the makeshift headstones in Greece’s mass graves just have numbers on them. 

When we go back to the harbour, it is calm. The debris is gone and the tavernas are serving again. A new batch of fresh faced volunteers dish out rice and beans from the back of a van. We meet one of the doctors we’d worked with the night before, a stoic south Londoner called Zakia. I ask about the children and she tells me that after so long in the water, they never really had much of a chance.

“Island hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe,” she explains. “When they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating, often the best thing you can do is just hold them.” 

I did that, I think. It means something but not enough. 

On the road that snakes from the harbour up past the olive groves, a procession of newly-arrived refugees is setting out on the twenty-four mile walk to the camps. 

The Truth About Turkey: EU Deal Endangers Lives

The fatal shooting of 16 Syrian refugees at the Turkish border, including three children, have amplified fears over the EU-Turkey deal struck to outsource the refugee crisis from European territory. The legality of the £4.6 billion deal relies on Turkey being a safe country for refugees. But this latest in a string of scathing human rights reports paints a far darker picture.


Under the deal, all migrants and refugees reaching Greece are immediately deported to Turkey without a review of their asylum application; a violation of international law, according to senior UN officials. This latest report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is considered conservative by sources on the border, who say many more have been killed.

There are also widespread reports that Ankara has been pushing hundreds of refugees back into Syria on a daily basis, including unaccompanied children. This would amount to a systematic violation of international human rights legislation, subsidised by the EU.

That is not a new development. Since the beginning of 2015, over 4,000 people have drowned trying to evade the Turkish coastguard on the crossing to Greece. The coastguard has long been accused of deliberately capsizing, firing upon and even electrocuting boatloads of men, women and children.

“My boat left with 67 people and twenty babies. Only nine of us made it,” said one refugee from Damascus, afraid to give his name in case he is deported back to Turkey. “They push people in the water and they drown… I don’t know why they do it.”

Turkey certainly has strong incentives to stop the boats at all costs; the deal depended on it. In exchange for becoming its border guard, the EU relaxed Turkey’s visa requirements and awarded Ankara £4.6 billion.

Those who avoid being pushed back into the warzone they fled from are ensnared by desperate poverty. Less than 0.1 percent of Syrians in Turkey are in line for work permits, few refugee children are in school and the camps are wracked with deprivation.

Many refugees describe deplorable conditions in the camps, although the mainstream media commonly refers to them as some of the ‘nicest in the world’. In reality, media access is so limited and controlled that in truth, much remains hidden from the outside world. This is glimpsed only through leaked videos like this one, apparently showing 2,500 refugees being housed on the floor of a sports hall sharing ‘two toilets and no exits’. Some of the newer camps are even being built on the Syrian side of the border, within the warzone itself. At the time of writing at least 35,000 Syrians are trapped on the wrong side of the line, begging to be let into their ‘safe third country’.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence to suggest the Turkish government is supplying and providing direct military assistance to Islamic State and other terrorist groups driving refugees out of neighbouring countries. To quote one Kurdish refugee from Iraq: “Turkey helps ISIS and fights Europe’s Migrant War – how can it be safe for us?”

Despite damning reports from Human Rights Watch amongst others, no investigation has been called into the deaths or human rights abuses. Instead, EU funds keep flowing and NATO warships have been deployed in the Aegean to help Turkey ‘seal the maritime border‘. And with 156 journalists arrested there in 2015 alone, Turkey may not be the place to keep refugees safe, but it’s a prime location to hide their persecution.

Originally published by the Huffington Post

And re-published by Hub Politic


EU Cracks Down on Independent Volunteers in Greece


Platanos: a self-organised refugee help point threatened with demolition in Lesvos, Greece – photograph by Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Everyone remembers their first solo boat, brimming with frightened people, crashing into the beach with no coastguard to see them safely ashore. You get the babies out first, too small for a lifejacket, carried over the rocks and churning water for mothers that can hardly stand. You remember how they clung to you, weeping with gratitude, and wondering where they got the strength to start walking to the camp.

There was a lot of that in October, when refugee numbers on Lesvos were peaking and I was there as an independent volunteer. Aid agencies were shipping in supplies without the staff to direct them where needed. And when they clocked off in the evenings, or said it was too dangerous enter the camp, there was only us, the riot police and the refugees. We did what we could in a dogged war against deprivation and indignity from the beaches to the camps. Then and since, it’s been the independent volunteers sacrificing sleep, meals and dry socks without a thought, because the need was so great and there was no one else.

The day I left, a former Free Syrian Army soldier driven out by corruption in the rebel ranks and fear for his family, told me: “You give some food, a blanket, and to you it seems small. But to us it means everything. Independent volunteers are the only ones who listen to us; who try to understand us as people. That is a miracle.”

That miracle has been happening all over Europe. Wherever governments and aid agencies have failed in their obligations under international law, thousands of people from all over the world have stepped up. They are giving up their holidays, even their jobs, to stretch a hand across all we’re told divide us, to bring compassion and solidarity to the refugee road, from France and Hungary to Spain and Greece.

With a bankrupt government appointed the gatekeeper of Europe, holes in Greece’s aid system were inevitable, so solidarity networks were given the go-ahead to do the lifesaving work no one else was going to do. As Lara, a young Dutch volunteer now in Chios explains, aid agencies are strangled by the political realities of this crisis.

“Because of the rules, they can’t even meet basic needs,” she says. “As an independent volunteer you know if you don’t distribute your 20 blankets, so many people will be freezing to death and that’s on your conscience. If you work for UNHCR and you have 200 but are forbidden to give them out, the order comes from higher up so conscience doesn’t come into it.”

When I left in November, more independents were coming to do what the aid agencies couldn’t: from feeding hungry people without waiting for the right paperwork to giving lifts to unregistered refugees, the sick, the old, pregnant women and toddlers left to climb mountains cold and wet. But now, they are under attack.

2016 began with a move to have all volunteers registered with the police. In a crisis where immigration law criminalises vital humanitarian work, this is a recipe for disaster. And it is not just about elbowing out the political activists; to ‘allow authorities time to organise the registration process’, entire flights chartered for volunteers have been cancelled. Even Clowns Without Borders were barred from the camps. The same thing is now happening in France, where independent volunteers are being barred from the camps at Dunkirk and Calais, reduced to watching months of work burned to the ground by authorities branding them ‘uncaring’ and ‘dangerous’.

There’s another glaring cause for concern on the Greek front: over half their police are Golden Dawn supporters. So, fifty-fifty chance you’re registering sensitive information with an armed fascist. That wasn’t an abstract danger to any of us: we had witnessed the racism and brutality. One night, we were so afraid of the police in our building, we slept in the car.


Frontex border patrol boat moored in Mytilene, Lesvos

With NATO warships now in the Aegean and Turkey stepping up the brutality of its border control, things on the island have slowed. But that cannot last and when it ends, things are going to look very different. Independent volunteers are being cleared off the islands to make way for Frontex and its militarised hotspot-detention system.

When they started throwing volunteers in jail, it was a sign of things to come. The first five were locked up on smuggling charges after they rescued 51 people from a stranded dinghy the coastguard would not look for. “They treated us like terrorists,” said one, when they were released on bail for €5-10,000 per head, facing a custodial sentence of five to ten years.

It was the beginning of a crackdown ordered from the highest levels. The Council of the European Union is preparing plans to equate humanitarian assistance with people trafficking, criminalising those saving lives at sea and caring for survivors on land.  “We feel as if we are in the resistance in World War Two,” said Lara. “We were ‘randomly’ checked for papers and passports and told not to feed the hungry. Every move we make is being watched.”

In Lesvos, seven international volunteers were even arrested for ‘stealing’ discarded lifejackets and a volunteer-run spotting station guiding boats at sea was shut down. Self-organised support stations like Platanos have been threatened with demolition. The solidarity group writes that things have changed radically in recent weeks: “Frontex vessels appeared and together with the Greek coastguard are barricading the sea the whole day. Few refugees reach the shore [and so] no support from the frontline camps can be offered to these people, leading them to spend many hours without food, dry clothes and medical attention. Platanos sea rescue team was stopped several times from providing help or guidance to refugee boats and we were ordered to back away.” Too often, ‘authorised’ help never comes. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) more than 400 people have drowned so far this year.

In the north, border police have been forcing refugees away from volunteer-run food and medical stations and out of heated tents into sub-freezing temperatures – a barbaric practice condemned by Amnesty International. Police have also demanded fake bribes from refugees: €100 to cross the border. Stories like that really highlight the irony of police screening for volunteers with ulterior motives.

In Chios, where one volunteer photographer has been arrested on espionage charges, volunteers report that “Frontex is now present everywhere… And they no longer allow fisher boats rented by volunteers to leave the harbour.” Elsewhere, volunteers have had their accommodation stormed by riot police and been submitted to full-body searches.

Grassroots organisations condemn the deadly consequences of Frontex interfering with emergency volunteer rescue operations.  As these are curtailed, volunteers report they are not being replaced, leaving boats without rescue to drown quietly in the darkness. One lifeguard, on condition of anonymity, told me tearfully: “You can’t imagine what it’s like… to have a mother hold out her baby to you from a waterlogged boat, and to tell her that you can’t take the child into safety because you’ll go to prison. I won’t do it.”

This is a bid to re-establish government control of Europe’s borderlands, particularly Lesvos, an island which, at last, the world was watching. Booting independents off the island, detaining refugees as sea and pushing boats back to Turkey all serve to sweep the refugee crisis off European soil – and under a Turkish carpet. At the same time, it re-directs donations back to the big agencies and destroys perhaps the most important achievement of this historic Europe-wide solidarity network: an army of whistle-blowers who educate and humanise this crisis for people back home.

But the crackdown is also opening eyes. Confronted with the barbarity of border control on one hand and the inadequacy of aid agencies on the other, young volunteers are looking elsewhere for answers. To quote 21-year-old James from Australia: “Seeing the agencies stand around, waiting for the solution to yesterday’s problem to be approved, while we were all getting things done with no funding… It taught me, the system can’t be this broken, it must be designed to fail people.”

If they can bring that conviction and commitment back with them they will be powerful agents for political change at home. And ultimately, that’s what it will take to bring justice and humanity back to the frontlines: a moral revolution at the heart of fortress Europe.


Locally organised refugee solidarity march in Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece (November 2015)

Originally published by Red Pepper

Odyssey Entry VI: Crossing No More

Evros fence closeup blog

‘The Monument for Refugees?’ the bar woman frowned. ‘Sorry, I do not know this place.’ Apparently none of the locals did, and it wasn’t on the town map. We had just crossed the border from Turkey and arrived in Orestiada, a small Greek border town founded by Turkish refugees in 1923. The Monument for Refugees commemorates those families who left Turkey for Greece—often under duress—as part of the population exchange between the two countries.

Greece and Turkey are divided by the mighty Evros river, a fierce natural barrier for those seeking to cross the border. But northeast of Orestiada, where the Evros bends, 12.5km of that border is dry land. Since time immemorial, this ‘gap’ in the river has provided safe passage for refugees through Turkey into Europe.

In recent years it’s been trodden by 100,000s refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. They pass through in search of asylum from countries wrecked by war, poverty and climate change. But that’s all over now. Greece has raised the drawbridge and Orestiada has become a bastion of Fortress Europe.

Evros Fence blog

The Evros fence

The fence was built by the right-wing Samaras administration in 2012. 12.5km of 13ft tall razor wire fencing complete with heat sensors now block this entry point, and over a thousand special police officers have been deployed to guard the Evros border. Clearly the austerity regime spares no expense when the threat of immigration is concerned. The land on both sides is designated a ‘controlled military zone’ and when we visited we were under constant scrutiny by our police escort and two stern-faced soldiers.

Whilst the militarisation of the border has achieved a sharp reduction in ‘irregular crossings’ here, it has forced more refugees to cross the perilous Aegean Sea, where soaring numbers of people are drowning in their quest for asylum. As one young Kurdish refugee told us, ‘no one endangers their children’s lives unless they have to. We have to. To stay is death or slavery.’

Boats have been going down in the Aegean and claiming double-figure casualties since 2012. From September of this year there has been an astronomical surge in sea crossings and the death toll is rising sharply. 20 October set a new record, with over 10,000 arrivals in a single day. The following week, as over 50,000 people attempted the crossing, at least 50 people drowned in just 72 hours. 17 were infants. Another 6 infants drowned along with five others when their boat sank on Sunday 1 November. Many more have drowned since.

We put this to Orestiada’s police chief, Pashalis Syritoudis. He has played a leading role in border control in the Evros region. He is an officious looking man, impeccably smart, with neat grey hair and a humourless face. ‘This operation has had very impressive results’ he told us proudly. He went through the stats: 28,000 were arrested in 2011, and 23,000 in 2012. But with the fence, 2013 saw just 492 arrests. To him this was a clear barometer of success: fewer arrests mean fewer refugees attempting to cross his border.

Fylakio Child blog

Child detained at Fylakio

We pointed out that following his operations, drownings have increased in the Aegean. Syritoudis was un-phased: ‘We are obligated to protect the borders of the EU. So this is what we do.’ He then added as an afterthought, ‘Of course we don’t like what’s going on in the islands and we hope for a political solution.’ When we asked him what that solution might look like, he became irritated: ‘I cannot answer a political matter. I do whatever the headquarters tell me.’

We then questioned him on the widespread reports of illegal pushbacks in the Evros. Tales of the pushbacks are commonplace in the camps, which might have something to do with why journalists are forbidden to interview refugees there. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International recently published reports of refugees who managed to cross the Evros being robbed, beaten and forced back into Turkey by unidentified men in violation of international law.

Syritoudis was dismissive at first. ‘The Greek police doesn’t approve and doesn’t use these methods… these claims about push backs are part of a general plan to unfairly accuse the police.’ When we asked if anyone else might be responsible for these abuses, he was categorical: No. If that were happening in his jurisdiction, he’d know about it.

Fylakio blog

Fylakio detention and ‘first reception’ centres

The First Reception Centre

Despite these operations, some refugees do manage to cross the Evros river into Greece where they are arrested and detained at the First Reception Centre on the outskirts of a nearby village, Fylakio. The centre was established in 2013 to hold people during their asylum applications. It was supposed to get the refugees out of prison and into a more humane facility providing medical, legal and psychosocial support.

We visited the Frist Reception Centre and interviewed its Director, Christos Christakoudis. We had read damning reports from 2014 that criticised its inhumane and degrading conditions. And for a reception centre designed to eliminate the need for prisons, it looks an awful lot like the detention centre next door. The perimeter bristles with razor wire, studded with armed guards and angry dogs.

Christos w Fylakio Detainees blog


Christos greeted us warmly, dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt. We immediately asked if we could see where the refugees live, but their huts were fenced off in a separate section of the facility. They were unable to leave their caged area, and we were not allowed in. All we could do was observe them on the other side of the fence. As the refugees saw us approach, they excitedly huddled to the fence to talk to us, clearly not used to visitors. ‘Reporter? BBC?’ asked one man, eager to tell us his story. We mimed to him that we were not allowed to speak. Another inmate beseeched us repeatedly: ‘It is no good here. Like a prison’ and ‘Police bad! Where is UN?’ One young boy told us quietly ‘I want to run away.’

We later learnt these Fylakio detainees 2 blogparticular refugees were Yazidi, a group that has suffered extreme brutality at the hands of ISIS in northern Iraq. Now they find themselves imprisoned in the place where democracy was born.

We asked Christos why the refugees had to be locked up. Was this appropriate for victims of war and torture, for women and children? Christos explained it was in their best interests. ‘Where will those people stay? Who will manage their food if you have an open place? … If those people are in the open air, you cannot provide for them.’

We were unconvinced and pressed the matter; Greek law demands detention be a last resort. His next argument was lack of resources: ‘If we were well organised as a state, as a country, if we had the funding to support open reception centres, of course. But according to my experience, I don’t think it is something that can happen.’

Safe Passage Now

Greek officials have previously admitted to deliberately and systematically subjecting refugees to degrading conditions as a disincentive; part of the brutal logic of border control. Perhaps this is the real reason the First Reception Centre is set up like a prison.

As for Christos himself, he is clearly a well-intentioned man. But like many in authority, he works with a deeply ingrained sense of paternalism: it is not only his duty, but his right to decide what’s in the refugees’ best interests. If it was European citizens in there, we’d all be calling it a breach of human rights and civil liberties. For them, it’s called the ‘asylum service.’

In opposition, Syriza condemned the fence. In power, it has so far failed to bring it down. In the face of so many deaths at sea, the possibility has finally been raised – but that was dependent on a wider EU deal and before the Paris bombings. Now, France is demanding the deployment of ‘rapid response teams’ of border guards to the Greek-Turkish frontier and the screening of all refugees entering from Turkey for terrorist links.

While world leaders ramp up the War on Terror rhetoric, countless refugees, deprived of safe passage, will keep drowning in Evros and the Agean, to be buried in unnamed and overcrowded graves. We did eventually manage to track down the Monument for Refugees in Orestiada. It stands hidden in a dilapidated, backstreet crossroads. A lonely symbol of the town’s forgotten past.

Monument to Refugees blog

Written with Samir Dathi & published by Red Pepper

Aid Agencies Keeping Feet Dry on Lesvos

I didn’t come to Lesvos as a volunteer. I came as a journalist, to report truthfully what I saw there. But in those crucial, urgent moments – when a few people struggle to feed 2,000 or screaming women hold their infants out to you from a storm-battered boat and there is simply no one else to put out their hands and help, you can’t just stand there and ask for an interview. At least, I couldn’t. So my five days on the island became five weeks. And it was in the act of volunteering whatever support was needed that I found the real story of the refugees: the story of how apathy and mismanagement turned a crisis into a tragedy.

It begins at the beaches. We all know boats are sinking – more than 3,000 lives have been lost this year in the Mediterranean crossing. Just the other day, a boat with 300 people went down. Apart from limited rescue operations by an overstretched Greek coastguard, what I call ‘the Independents’ – small bands of volunteers from Lesvos and around the world – are often all that stand between the refugees and that ugly, growing number.

On my first day on the beaches I was swimming buoyancy aids out to refugees jumping from waterlogged dinghies. That was the day I first used CPR and later, watched as the government registration rules kept a mother from holding her dying child. All this as representatives of a major aid agency stood with dry shoes on the beach taking photos with their phones. The rule, to which I am sure there are exceptions, seems to be that after a day on the beach you can tell the aid workers from the volunteers on the basis of who has wet feet.


At the island’s makeshift refugee camps, everyone has wet feet. Trench foot and flu were rampant during last week’s storms, and in the absence of adequate shelter construction or even tarpaulin provision, we volunteers handing out bin liners created a frenzy. For weeks, police had been using violence and teargas almost daily. Food shortages have been constant and the near-total absence of translators aggravates regular episodes of panic and violence during the agonising and ineffectual registration system.

Nights are the worst. Once the aid agencies ‘clock off’, there is no one to help the lost child, the bleeding mother-to-be, the ailing grandfather. And in the face of every kind of deprivation you could name, comes a chorus from every corner: “It’s not our jurisdiction.” So the volunteers make it theirs, and even when the world is watching, this is the reality it never sees.

The aid system in Lesvos can and must be reformed. For me, there are three vital elements missing: honesty, humility and humanity.


The crisis sweeping Europe is not going away any time soon. Refugee numbers Police Kick at Moria (taken by refugee)are on the rise and winter is on the way. Without radical reform, thousands of men, women and children are going to die needlessly on European soil.

Neither frontline governments nor NGOs can possibly prepare for this unless they are prepared to tell this simple truth.

Perhaps if this were not a debt-ridden nation in the midst of its own crisis, there would be a “gigantic humanitarian effort” under way in Greece, but for the record, there is not. And Camp Moria has not been a place where children get PlayStations and have their faces painted. The racist violence, corruption, police impunity and legal failures criticised in the past are very much still part of the picture. As worrying as this is, the fact is: only the Independents seem willing to speak about them.


What frustrates the Independents more than anything is the apparent territorialism of the big aid agencies. In one particularly revealing incident, a woman whose infant had drowned on the crossing was literally fought over on the beach by employees of rival charities keen to represent her case and the media attention it would garner. Bartering in this kind of ‘poverty porn’ alienates the refugee community from those who are meant to be supporting them.

Many Independents come with vital skills: lifeguards from Denmark, coastguards from Spain, paramedics from Norway. The list goes on. But often, it’s the basic contributions that are most needed: small-scale fundraising, cooking and cleaning, building shelters and perhaps the most precious commodity of all: time. “You guys are the only ones that make us feel heard,” one refugee told me. Independents also enjoy a degree of freedom that allows them to respond more efficiently to rapidly changing circumstances and endless red tape. We’re prepared to drive hypothermic children to shelter without waiting for police permission, for example. And we are present at all hours in places formal agencies have abandoned.

Most Independents understand that those working for formal organisations, while empowered in some ways, are restricted in others. But when overstretched, the only answer is to collaborate with Independents as autonomous, equal partners in the provision of a lifesaving service; to share resources where possible and maintain a dialogue always.

The same goes for refugees themselves. Many have urgently needed skills – from construction to translation. A formalised and mutually beneficial system to utilise these skills could transform the camps.

Lack of coordination and support leaves untrained Independents working night and day, not getting what they need, while aid agencies seem to have storehouses full of resources and lack the personnel to distribute them. If only an efficient, dynamic relationship could be built between these two sides, we might start to see some of the infrastructure needed to cope with what is surely still to come.


Last week, when I needed to get papers fast-tracked for a bereaved mother whose infant was hospitalised and on the brink of death, I asked a UNHCR (UN refugee agency) staff member what could be done for her. He just stared at me. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go,” I implored. He shook his head: “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

Independent volunteers distributing bin bags at Moria

I got my degree in Politics and International Development from SOAS, University of London. When I started, I was aspiring to work for UNHCR myself. What I learned at university made me more critical of the structures in which they operate, but after my experience in Lesvos I really don’t think I ever could. Time and again I’ve been shocked by the apathy and detachment displayed by the professional aid workers. There’s also the question of how Syrians are treated so much better than anyone else, something the aid system doesn’t seem to be contesting nearly enough.

In a crisis situation when most suffer without even the basics, some will always try to cheat the system. It’s not like there would be a level playing field even if they didn’t – the survival game is rigged and competition is brutal. But that doesn’t give anyone, from a position of power and privilege, the right to make generalised assumptions that every starving, dehydrated woman that faints in the queue is faking it or just “hysterical” (a favourite camp term). Once you start making generalised assumptions like that, dehumanising the ones you’re meant to help, you’re no longer qualified to be of help.


On the ferry to Athens recently, I hid two Afghan mothers with infants in my cabin so they’d have somewhere to sleep out of the oceanic wind, and spent my evening on deck with some of my new-found Syrian friends. As we talked the night away, we found ourselves cracking jokes about all this, doing impressions, demanding “PAPERS!” from each other whenever someone needed the toilet.

But like me, I think they laugh to keep from crying. Their endurance, their dignity, their courage to carry on, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. They’re not victims, they’re survivors. And if my critique of the aid system here seems idealistic, it is only because I hold it to the standards they deserve. The people I have met and the stories they have told me are all the evidence we need: we can do better than this.

Originally written for IRIN Global

Entry IV: The Sinking of the Nameless: Recollections of a Volunteer/Journalist

Great tragedies are supposed to have names. The Titanic, the Lusitania… Their dead live forever in the stories we tell about them and the living fight for change in their memory that they might not die in vain. This is just a boat of ‘migrants’ that sunk in the Aegean, another number, another regrettable spat of collateral damage in the border war. But not to us, the ones who were there when the rescued came into harbour. Not to me. Last night was the most traumatic of my life. Back home, I spoke with confidence about how ‘borders kill’ – but now I’ve seen it with my own eyes and I will never forget the sinking of that nameless ship.

Official Count So Far: 35 confirmed dead (5+ children) – not that the officials are bothering much to keep counting… Many still lost at sea & families waiting for news including Named Shorooq, still in Greece searching for her children.

My friend Ashley and I were supposed to drive back across the island of Lesvos to Mytilini yesterday, but every couple of kilometers along the beach we saw another dinghy coming in without enough volunteers to meet them, so we stopped, and stopped, and stopped again. The sky was blue but the sea was furious, the wind was biting. Freezing children bundled into cars, battles for access to the bus, ambulances called for the sick… it’s chaotic and distressing, but it’s the daily reality on the beaches here and it’s remarkable how quickly you adapt, find a way to be useful and to cope. We were not prepared to cope with what was coming.


Another two-storey wooden boat that just made it to the beach

We hadn’t eaten all day so we decided to stop at the port in Molyvos to grab some food. We were a few bites into our bread when the sirens started: the coastguard was coming in from a rescue. We ran to the water, where volunteers, locals and medical teams were converging, armed with emergency blankets. Rumours flew that this was a bad one. We expected people who’d been in the water, but had no idea the boat that went down could have had 300 souls on board.

Later that night, I would meet Gabriel, a photographer I knew from Skala who’d seen it happen from the cliffs. He was the one to call the coastguard. He showed me two photographs, taken he said just a minute apart. The first was a blurry image of a two-storey wooden boat – the kind that started appearing on the beaches during last week’s storm, left at terrifying angles on the beach with broken windows and emergency blankets fluttering from the railings. In the second photograph, the boat was gone completely; all that remained was a pool of orange life preservers, shining in a great expanse of blue.

Ten or fifteen children came off that first rescue boat, which headed immediately back out to sea. I threw my camera around my back and put my arms out to receive a young Syrian boy from the coastguard. He couldn’t have been more than nine years old. I ran for the medical team, transfixed by his face, that looked so peaceful but for the dullness of his skin and the blue in his lips. I lay him down by a doctor, who was already working on a little girl, so I got my first crash course in CPR. It was terrifying. I was so afraid of hurting him, of doing something wrong. 30 chest compressions. Hold the nose. Two breaths until the chest rises. (Please, look this up on YouTube if you’re coming out as a volunteer.) His mouth was freezing. Sometime into the second round another medic arrived and we worked as a team. The boy started coughing up water, and once he was breathing right we stripped him of his wet clothes. Then the medic was gone again.

I’ve been an atheist all my life. But that was when I started praying.

I wrapped him up and lifted him onto my lap, tearing off my jacket and covering his body with mine. I don’t know how long we sat there. I glanced over and saw Ashley holding a little girl by her ankles while the medics tried to get the water from her chest. Every time I saw a medic I had them check him. They were overwhelmed with critical cases and they said he was okay. But he didn’t look okay to me. I was rocking him back and forth, talking constantly in English and my pathetic amount of Arabic, trying to keep him awake. I’ve never felt love as desperate and immense as holding that boy in my arms. I don’t even know his name, but I will never forget his face.

A good friend warned me recently that you cannot be a volunteer and a journalist. Journalists do not get involved. I thought about that a lot as I held this boy, who in that moment had only me in the world, and watched photographers circling like vultures, getting in people’s way, shoving their lenses where any decent human being must surely know they don’t belong. And all I could think was: If it’s true you have to choose, I don’t want to be a journalist anymore. Finally the ambulances came, and in a few minutes he was bundled in the back and whisked off with the others. From what I hear, it sounds like he didn’t make it. They’re saying most of the children died. They had been in the water too long.

We thought it would be over then, but I was woken from my daze by the second siren; the coastguard was back with another boat full of people. I took an Afghan woman from the boat. She gripped my neck like she was still drowning, but had no concern for herself. “My mother, my brother!” She screamed. I tried not to think of my own mother drowning. “Boats are still coming,” I told her in English. I knew she understood but she made no response. “We have to care for you now.” At first she wouldn’t let me. I sat her down and blanketed her before working on the clothes. “Please, please, my mother is a good woman.” I nodded. “So many people who come here are good,” I said.

Her name was Sultana. She was alone now, she kept saying. We got her changed, shaking and crying, and in that moment feeding her water was the most beautiful thing I have done in my life. The local priest had opened the church for shelter so I took her inside. Recovery position. Coughing up the last of the water. I took her name and promised I’d look for her family, that she should stay where it was safe and I’d come back for her. She kissed me and kissed me. I did come back for her, but she was gone, and in the chaos I couldn’t find her again.

Nameless5There was one more boat after that and fewer people this time. By now, the coastguard had given up the search. Locals had opened their tavernas and cafes for shelter, making caldrons of tea while elderly Greek women rocked motherless babies in their arms. There were so many families split. I ended up working with a translator to help the International Rescue Committee (IRC) compile a list of names. I was dealing mostly with the mothers. They were relieved to have someone asking after their children. Typically they stayed calm while they spelled each name and gave the age of each child. Then when it was done, and the helplessness set in, they broke down and wept and beat the floor. I held them as they cried, feeling useless. One of them, a beautiful Syrian woman called Named Shorooq who I’d helped change before, had lost her husband and all three children. But she was one of many.

When the translator left I hid in an alleyway where no one could see me and sat down to cry. It didn’t last long – it couldn’t. I wiped my face, stood up and went back. The first person I ran into was a volunteer asking for help with another mother. She sat in a doorway with her wet clothes still on, refusing everything, even water and sugar tablets. She would take nothing until we found her two month old infant. I spent a long time trying to figure that one out. Once she recognised me as ‘the person on the phone’, her eyes started following me wherever I went. Every time I took a call, there was hope in her eyes. I started gesturing ‘no news’ as quickly as possible.

Then the news came: there were two very small babies at the hospital, but it looked like they wouldn’t make it, and we couldn’t bring the mother to the hospital because the police weren’t letting anyone in. She had been rescued at sea, so she was ‘in detention’ until she registered and got her papers. No papers, no hospital, they said.

In my shell-shocked state of mind, and with the mother’s eyes always on me, I became fixated on this singular injustice. While I assisted the other volunteers, I kept returning to it. I argued with the police. I argued with the sole UNHCR staff member. No one with the power to do anything seemed willing to try. I was haunted by the notion that the presence of its mother might make the difference between life or death for that baby. At the least, she was being robbed of her chance to say goodbye. My rage became unspeakable.

Suddenly, like an alien from another planet, good news appeared for the other mother: ‘Shorooq family found.’ They’d been dropped somewhere else and were being driven back. I grabbed a translator and headed to where I’d left Named. It sounded like it was all of them, but we didn’t want to risk it so we told her all we knew was that some relatives were coming. She started crying again, kissing my hands, refusing to let me go. I decided to wait with her, as much for my sake as for hers. I needed to see something good happen.

We held each other as we waited and I listened to her pray. Every time a van came she was moving with impossible speed, despite her exhaustion, her nose pressed against the windows looking for her babies. In the third van, her husband came, carrying her youngest, 2 year old Razan, in his arms. There Nameless4were no others.

She fell to the floor and screamed, thumping his legs as she wept, still gripping my hand. This wasn’t what we’d been waiting for. It was almost worse than nothing, as though in the presence of this little child all she could see was the absence of the other two, the death of her hope. I told her more people were coming, that names were still being found, children were still in the hospital. It was possible they were alive. But I didn’t really believe it, and neither did she. Her daughter, Maram, was six. Her other son, Malak, aged three. Eventually, she took Razan in her arms like she would never let go.

I left them grieving together and went to give the other mother some answers. I couldn’t bear to see her waiting any longer. I explained there were babies at the hospital receiving intensive care. We could not bring them to her, or take her to the hospital to identify them. I was sorry. At the very least, I would find someone to help see her to Camp Kara Tepe in the morning, to be fast-tracked for her registration papers. Naturally, I went to the UNHCR guy. As calmly as I could, I told him I accepted there was nothing to be done for her tonight, and that she knew it too, but please could we just talk about what would happen tomorrow, so I could tell her something. Anything. He stared at me and made vowel sounds. “Please, can you take her name at least? We can have someone look for her tomorrow, make sure she gets where she needs to go?” He shook his head. “Registration is the police’s responsibility.” I asked him exactly what his responsibility was. He ignored me.

Now I was really incredulous. I felt sure he could do something, or at least try. Anyone with phone numbers and the will could have done that. “You know the police will not listen to her, even if they understood Arabic,” I argued. “Please, can we talk together and try to figure out how to do our best for her?” He walked away from me, but with the help of the IRC, we formulated a plan to have them collected in the morning and another family member fast-tracked so she didn’t have to go to the hospital alone. I think I knew then she would be going to identify the body. I don’t have words for how that conversation felt.

I spent the rest of my time in a waterfront café, getting a few people fed while Ashley used her smartphone to help people contact their families back home. Across the table from me, a volunteer from Drop in the Ocean, an incredible Norwegian organisation, was comforting a teenage girl named Sara whose entire family had been lost at sea. She wouldn’t take any food. An LCD TV screen shone down on us from the ceiling, showing adverts and a basketball game: a window to another universe that never seemed so unreal. Then the news came on, and we watched images of ourselves from the hours before. It was so surreal.

Eventually we found somewhere to stay. We talked a little, just to hear each other’s voices I think, and I cried quietly until I fell asleep. This morning I was straight on the laptop looking for coverage, which was a typically disappointing experience: all superficial reports that a few ‘migrants’ have drowned off Lesvos.

So I wanted to write this and post it today, a small contribution to the record of what really happened and my way of remembering the Nameless.

From what I could gather from the refugees last night, around 300 people were packed onto two-storey boat that looked like it was built to hold a third of that number. In the rough conditions, the weight was too much, and the top floor crashed down onto the bottom and the whole thing went down in less than a minute. People would have been trapped underneath, the children’s lungs rapidly waterlogged by the force of the water. The irony is, those with vulnerable companions pay extra for the wooden boats, because they’re meant to be safer. So more women and children, more elderly refugees and those with disabilities, went down.

I’ve been thinking about the smuggler than ran that ship, how much profit he made from those extra hundred tickets and paid for with lives. Apparently he escaped in a second boat. I wonder if he’ll be haunted by this catastrophe for the rest of his life. But it doesn’t really matter. As long as this war continues, the refugees will keep coming as sure as the sun will rise.

This morning we returned to the harbour. The sea is calm and life is going on. The tavernas are serving, the volunteers are back out here and a procession of new refugees make their way up the hill to the camp. The crisis is relentless, because the causes of the crisis are relentless.

And as long as the EU refuses to grant these refugees safe legal passage, the smugglers will continue to exploit them. Ultimately, it is our governments with the power, resources and responsibility to act, who I hold responsible for what happened last night; and what is happening in so many nights in so many places across Europe now.

One of the doctors saving lives at the harbour last night, Zakia from the UK, told me this morning that the odds of those children were never good, after being in the water for so long. “Especially here on the island, the hospitals just aren’t equipped to deal with this kind of catastrophe. You need surgeons trained to perform tracheotomies, oxygen, ventilation… To be honest, when they’ve taken in that much water, even if you can get the heart beating again, really the best thing you can do is hold them.” I did that. And that brings me some comfort, but not much.

What we really need, is safe passage for the refugees. Now.


Odyssey Entry II: Lesvos’ Hidden Humanitarian Disaster

12th October 2015 – Police beatings, tear gas, hunger and chaos. It sounds more like the repression of the Arab Spring than UN staffed registration centre for refugees. But at Camp Moria on the Greek island of Lesvos, this is the shameful reality.

Registration Queue Clash at Moria  Copywright: Ruby Brookman Prins

Riot police clash with refugees at Moria

Lesvos has long been on the front line of Europe’s refugee crisis, with almost 200,000 arriving this year. The vast majority are fleeing government persecution and ISIS forces in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. They come to Lesvos from Turkey on what they call ‘the death boats’, the lack of legal channels having created an unregulated market for people smuggling, with drowning common due to overcrowding. The lucky ones are met on the beach by local and international volunteers; the rest by paramilitary coastguards and riot police.

Arriving on the island, I worked with volunteers from the PIKPA camp – the only truly humanitarian camp I’ve seen, run entirely by volunteers and donations – distributing food at Camp Karatepe. One staff member from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) told me he had only 13 colleagues on the entire island. Syrian families huddled in scarce spots of shade and squalid conditions. Yet it did nothing to prepare me for what I saw at Camp Moria that night.

‘The Hell Hole’


Registration queue crush at Moria

Moria, described to me as a ‘hell hole for non-Syrians’, is Lesvos’ main camp and where all migrants and refugees must register. The police prohibit journalists from visiting without an escort, and speaking to the refugees or photographing the facilities is forbidden. When I arrived, aid workers were outnumbered by riot police. At night there were none at all, leaving a handful of young international volunteers to fill the gulf left by the international agencies. They had no medical staff and only what basic food and pharmaceutical supplies they could scrape together themselves.

Many people sleep exposed to the cold at night, without tents, sleeping bags or warm clothing. Volunteers save their blankets for children and those who arrive soaked in sea water. The ‘toilets’ consist of a few portapotties and concrete rooms floored with swamps of human waste. Between two locked and fenced off ‘reception centres’ bristling with razor wire, a steep slope leads to the registration office where everyone must register to proceed to Athens or anywhere else. When I arrived there were hundreds queuing through blistering heat and cold of night while riot police loomed over the line. Women and children, sick and injured, are all subject to the same degrading conditions.

One volunteer, who complained to UN staff that surplus food at Karatepe should be feeding Moria’s hungry, was told that it was too dangerous and to ‘leave Moria to the police.’ The consequences of this policy have been dire and instructive. These people are traumatised, hungry, thirsty, exhausted. Waves of panic and frustration are commonplace. Refugees and volunteers widely report that the police, lacking any proper training, often respond with violence. Families commonly queue for days and each time the line is disrupted they must begin the ordeal from the beginning.

Two young volunteers from the UK, Annie Risner and Ruby Prins, recalled how tensions escalated in the early hours of Tuesday last week: ‘A diabetic man had collapsed for want of insulin. An Afghan woman recovering from heart surgery collapsed unconscious in the queue. The police wouldn’t help. We called an ambulance, then the violence started. Police were beating men and women alike. When they throw the teargas people really start to panic because there are families in the line. Kids get crushed, joints get dislocated and bones get broken in the stampede.’ The Hellenic police declined to comment. UNHCR writes: ‘Any difficulties that may arise in relation to crowd management due to high numbers of new arrivals [do] not constitute an excuse for the use of violence or any kind’.

Police Kick at Moria (taken by refugee)

Taken by a refugee at Moria

A New Moria

The following day brought something new to this island: the Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras and Austrian chancellor, Werner Feymann. Their visit lasted a grand total of three hours. Much more time was spent sweeping refugees under the carpet prior to their arrival. According to local media, over 45,000 were removed from Lesvos in the past fortnight. Journalist Sofia Christoforidou reported extra ships being brought in to take refugees off the island and block new boats from coming in.

Volunteers and refugees feared that seeing the full extent of the crisis might prompt Tsipras to shut the border and trap countless numbers in Turkey, where conditions and police brutality are even worse than in Moria. Still, the volunteers I spoke to all wanted to get the truth out, not cover it up. At Moria however, the authorities opted for a more unorthodox approach: they hid the real Moria and built a fake one.

One volunteer sent this statement, on condition of anonymity: ‘The authorities set up a fake camp, did a bit of gardening and brought in a few Syrian families… Volunteers do what they can but the UN has been totally absent, MSF [Medicines Sans Frontiers] working only a few hours, a few tents but most sleeping in the dirt. There has been regular tear gassing and assaults by police. Shame on the Greek government, the UN and the organisations that allowed this to happen.

Many others repeated the same bizarre story: buses brought in to obscure the main camp and on the outside, the filth hidden under fresh concrete, and food and chairs put out. Meanwhile, the sick and injured from the previous night went unattended. UNHCR consultant Ron Remond told me this was in the interests of the Prime Minister’s safety. His visit lasted twenty minutes: time for a selfie with newly materialised UN staff and one quick peak behind the bus. Then he was gone and that night Moria descended once more into chaos.

Annie and Ruby reported rioting, refugees forming human shields to protect the vulnerable and threatening a walk out. ‘We were being treated like animals,’ explained 19-year-old Ali from Afghanistan. ‘We’ve had no shelter, no food, no answers, just beatings. We said we would walk out of the camp, a thousand of us, all together.’

But when I visited the camp again on Saturday, it was unrecognisable. A new fast track system had been able to register thousands in 24 hours. UNHCR was bringing in more people, the camp had been cleared of rubbish, bottled water had gone out and kids played together in the Save the Children camp.

By the next day, however, things were going back to normal: fast-track registration was terminated, people queued all day without moving and were told the ID numbers they’d queued for all the previous day were null and void. However, following my report for Al Jazeera, the Hellenic Police issued a statement saying they had ordered an ‘urgent investigation’ into brutality at Moria. All this shows what can happen when the world is watching. But Old Moria is what happens the moment we turn away.

Turning the Tide

Following his visit to the capital of Lesvos, Mytilini, Tsipras called again on Europe to help resolve the humanitarian disaster Greece has neither the financial resources nor the moral obligation to face alone. But his calls for ‘greater collaboration with Turkey’ caused alarm. They foreshadowed this week’s negotiations between Turkey and the EU, which proposes to pay President Edrogan $1billion to expand the Turkish camps and shut the Greek-Turkish border in collaboration with Europe’s corporate border guard, Frontex.

Moria Family Seperation

Families by separated detention fences at Moria © Marienna Pope-Weidemann

The inconvenient truth for EU leaders is that refugees say they are not safe in Turkey. Sana, a 29 year old Kurdish teacher, told me the Turkish camps ‘were very bad. They beat us and insult us, they say if we did not deserve exile then we would not be here. They won’t even give milk to the babies. They hate us.’ Others report being robbed, tortured, and even witnessing Turkish soldiers aiding ISIS. Many also fear that Edrogan might quietly push thousands back into Syria and Iraq, trapped with ISIS behind them and the steel walls of Europe in front.

The EU has long been allocating billions for border control, with precious little left to fund lifesaving humanitarian work in disaster zones like Lesvos. As security tightens, refugees move on to find another way, leaving aid agencies scrambling to keep up. I asked one Kurdish father if harsher security measures would dissuade him. ’41 members of my family are dead. My daughters, 10 and 12, were kidnapped and killed themselves rather than be sold as slaves,’ he said with tears in his eyes. ‘I have to get my wife and son out, do you understand? What do I have to fear from fences?’

For now, refugees are still arriving in Lesvos in their thousands. On Thursday night 56 people were saved from drowning and one toddler lost his life. The very next night the lack of safe, legal channels for the crossing cost another life: a baby hidden in a bag and mistaken for baggage, tossed overboard to stop another ‘death boat’ sinking.

UNHCR’s Ron Redmond highlights the need to legalise passage and calls for EU funds earmarked for humanitarian work. But he also said that European states have every right to control their own borders and in truth, there is a growing contradiction there. With the spread of such incredible violence throughout the region, the EU will have to make a choice: to open the gate, or let countless numbers of people die on the other side.

Registration Slope Moria

Syrian families leaving Moria now hoping for sanctuary in EU © Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Originally reported by Al Jazeera

Full story run by Red Pepper Online